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Cooking Off the Cuff: The Only Hamburger Buns You Need

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Passing along a recipe for hamburger buns could be construed as seasonal, what with outdoor grilling and delicious, ripe tomatoes. Take it that way if you like, but for Jackie and me, these excellent buns are something we like to keep in the freezer all the time, not only for hamburgers but for all manner of sandwiches from canned tuna to leftover roast lamb.

What brings these near to the ideal is that they combine sturdiness with softness: they won't fall apart under attack from meat and tomato juices, but any set of teeth will bite through them with ease - and even soft fillings won't be squeezed out as you eat. They also taste good and are easy to make, including by cooks like me who don't regularly make bread and lack the technique of a master baker.

I also lack the principles and rigor of a real bread-baker, so I throw this dough together in a few minutes using a food processor. A stand mixer with dough hook will surely work, as will a pair of hands - though either of those options will take longer. A scale, to my mind, is almost required, so I'm giving only metric measurements. The internet will help you convert to volume measures if you are a die-hard user of the American system of eight-fluid-ounce cups. (But note my use of tea- and tablespoons for some ingredients. I don't think this sinks to the level of hypocrisy, just charming inconsistency.)

For six or seven buns, I start by taking 35 g butter (OK: 2-1/2 tablespoons if you insist) out of the fridge to soften, and weighing out 375 grams of flour, a quirky mixture of 2/3 bread flour (white) and 1/3 lower-gluten pastry flour. I've made these with bread flour on its own, and indeed with all-purpose flour, and the outcome has always been just fine.

The flour goes into the food processor with a teaspoon of instant yeast and a half-tablespoon of fine salt (or a scant tablespoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt, which is less dense). No sugar. Pulse the machine a couple of times to combine the dry ingredients; then, in a measuring cup, combine 125 ml whole milk with 125 ml of warm water, yielding a mixture that is tepid rather than hot or cold: think of body temperature.

With the blade spinning, add about three quarters of the liquid and see where you stand: The dough needs to be soft, even somewhat sticky, and it needs to stretch when pulled. Again with the machine running, slowly pour in more of the water-milk mixture until the dough has almost reached that stage, taste it for salt, then add the butter, softened but not melted, and run the food processor until this is thoroughly incorporated. If the dough is too soft to handle, you can add a little more flour; if too hard, a little more water. Again, it is going to be slightly sticky: this will right itself when the dough rises and rests and when it is formed into buns.

Using your hand and, if necessary, a dough scraper or spatula, transfer the dough to a container large enough to accommodate it when it has doubled in volume. Cover the container tightly and let the dough rise at cool room temperature for a couple of hours or until it has at least doubled in volume. When you're ready to form the buns, heat your oven to 400º F (200º C), or a little lower if you have a convection oven.

Punch the dough down (not too viciously), deploy your scale, and break or cut off pieces of dough weighing a shade over 3 ounces (say, a shade under 90 grams); I aim for 3-1/8 oz. How much liquid you've used will determine the total weight of your dough, but you will definitely get half a dozen buns of that size, with enough dough left for one smaller bun - and sometimes enough for seven full-size buns. If there's a tiny bit of extra dough, add a little to each bun and let them be a few grams overweight. Now, shape the buns: on an unfloured work surface, loosely cup a piece of dough in your hand and roll it in a small circular motion. The unfloured countertop or cutting board will grab the dough and pull the surface into the smooth skin that is preferred in all bread baking. Take a look at this Betty Crocker video, bearing in mind that the dough there appears to be drier and stiffer than you want yours to be.

Now you can flour your work surface and, one by one, flatten and stretch the dough balls into discs about 3-1/2 inches (9 cm) in diameter. It's okay if the surface is dimpled with your finger marks: It will become smooth and domed as the buns rise and bake. Place the discs on a baking sheet, preferably lined with baking parchment (greaseproof paper), leaving a little space between them.

Dust the discs with flour - lightly - and lay a sheet of plastic wrap over the pan. You can then cover it with a light kitchen towel before leaving the buns to rise for about 40 minutes at warm room temperature; they will be puffy and will feel airy and yielding when prodded with a finger. If they still feel dense, leave them for another 20 minutes.

You don't need to gild these with egg wash, though you can if you like; that dusting of flour makes them look nice enough (you can renew it before baking if necessary). Bake for 25 minutes or until golden and well-cooked (you can check with a probe thermometer; look for an internal temperature higher than 205º F/96º C; I aim for 207 or 208 F / 97 or 98 C). Remove from the oven and cover the buns with a kitchen towel until cooled to room temperature: You want the crust to be soft, not crisp. When completely cool and not before, store in a plastic bag (also to keep the buns soft), or freeze.

Unless you're eating these within a couple of hours, and probably even then, split them with a sharp or serrated knife and toast them on a grill pan to add flavor to the grilled surface and restore softness to the interior. Used as described above, or for just about any sandwich short of corned beef or pastrami, these will become a constant in your hand-held dining repertoire.

(In one of the photos, I mention the "special sauce" on our hamburgers. It is made of store-bought mayonnaise combined with Momofuku Ssäm Sauce and a little lemon juice.)

The Only Hamburger Buns You Need